Anti-mainland China sentiments

Does taking photos during flag-raising ceremony break China’s new national anthem law?

Debate continues over what constitutes ‘respectful and solemn behaviour’ during performance of March of the Volunteers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 10:41am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 10:49pm

When the national anthem was played and the Chinese flag climbed slowly up the pole in Tiananmen Square at sunrise on Tuesday, most of the spectators reacted in the same way – they took out their phones and captured every moment of the daily ceremony.

Some moved around to find a better angle for photos. Others were talking to each other, marvelling at the grandeur of the ceremony.

“I think showing respect and behaving in a solemn manner when the anthem is played does not just mean how you behave. It is also about how you feel about the anthem deep inside,” said Wang Chunkun, a 22-year-old spectator from Henan province.

“I arrived at 5am [two hours before the flag-raising], and there were already so many people in front of me. But it was totally worth it.”

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Wang was speaking against the backdrop of a simmering debate on the national anthem law, which was passed in mainland China in September and inserted into the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, on Saturday.

Not everyone shared her view. Taking pictures during ceremonies when the anthem is being played should be considered disrespectful, Yu Hai, former leader of the People’s Liberation Army military band, told the official Xinhua agency.

The new law requires everyone to stand solemnly and show respect when the anthem is played. Anyone who maliciously modifies the lyrics, or plays or sings March of the Volunteers in a distorted or disrespectful way in public can be detained for up to 15 days under the law or imprisoned for three years under the mainland criminal code.

Watch: How well do Hongkongers know their national anthem?

The Hong Kong government said it would adopt the measure “by way of appropriate local legislation” consistent with the city’s constitutional and legal regime. This has raised questions about how the law should be enforced without undermining freedom of expression and how to define respectful and solemn behaviour.

Legal academic Song Xiaozhuang said one factor in determining whether a person’s behaviour was disrespectful to the anthem was whether the person was disturbing others.

“There has to be a level of reasonableness in your behaviour,” the professor at Shenzhen University’s Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau said.

Explainer: what will China’s national anthem law mean for Hong Kong?

Craig Choy Ki, convenor of the Progressive Lawyers Group in Hong Kong, said it was not possible for the law to be too specific.

“It is very hard to define solemn and respectful behaviour. It should be up to the court to make a decision,” he said.

As an example, Choy said it was impractical for customers and waiters at a restaurant to stand up solemnly when the anthem was played on television.

If Hong Kong were to press ahead with the legislative process, he said, the city could consider enacting the law without imposing punishment.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said on Monday the local version of the anthem law would not contain sufficient detail to cover all situations in which it might apply. He was also non-committal on calls from lawmakers for guidelines on how the law should be enforced to avoid undermining freedom of expression.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen previously said that the government would refer to laws against disrespecting the Chinese flag or emblem while drafting the anthem law.

The city’s National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance, on the books since 1998 to prohibit abuse of either of those symbols, prescribes a maximum penalty of three years in prison. It also carries a fine of HK$50,000.

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Braving the cold and smog in Tiananmen Square, other spectators said they did not think taking photos during the flag-raising ceremony should be considered disrespectful.

“I think being respectful means that you don’t play around with your friends when the anthem is played. I just had to take photos so I would always remember today,” a 22-year-old spectator from Hebei province said.

His friend said: “When we were in high school, there was also flag-raising every Monday. I felt emotional every time I saw the flag go up the pole.”

Phila Siu is reporting from Beijing